CatholicChurchInteriorCapeMayNJ Rarely do I hear Catholic commentators and apologists admit that the Catholic Church in America is losing people/communicants in very large numbers. The reasons for this exodus are complicated and rarely discussed by Catholics, the very Christians who ought to be profoundly concerned. Popular Catholic ministries use radio, television and the Internet to rally the faithful to “come home” and to better understand how important the church is to living faith. This is done in several prominent ways, some that even misrepresent Protestant evangelicalism in order to make the point that the Catholic apologist desires to make. Long ago I decided that such polemical attacks, launched routinely on both sides, served little or no purpose in actually helping Christians get to Jesus in real faith and obedience. AS I read the New Testament it seems to me that this ought to be the goal of all Christians and churches.

The common thread in popular Catholic explanations for this exodus is personal experience. Until recently there was very little social scientific research into the actual reasons people had for leaving the Catholic Church. Now we have growing evidence of reasons for these numbers, numbers not simply based on stories and anecdotes.

One out of every ten Americans is an ex-Catholic. If these people formed a separate denomination they would become the third largest denomination in the U.S. after Catholics and Baptists. One of three people who was raised a Roman Catholic no longer self-identifies as a Roman Catholic. But the U. S. Catholic bishops have not spent a single dime trying to understand “why” this has been happening. Now, the reasons can be studied thanks to some serious research done by the Pew Center on Religion.

This data shows that ex-Catholics can be divided into two major groups: the now unaffiliated and Protestants. The numbers are almost split evenly, thus half of those who leave the Catholic Church become Protestant. (If you listen to popular Catholic radio and television you would think that the largest numbers of those who leave are going from Protestant to Catholic but the evidence does not support this claim at all.)

Again, I have no horse in a race here. I am concerned, as most of you know, for the whole of the church thus I take no delight in the problems that American Catholics face. I do, however, wish that more Catholics would address their own household rather than spend time attacking others. (I know, evangelicals do the same thing but that doesn’t make it right either way if you are still with me to this point.)

So why do these Catholics become Protestants? Do they leave because they disagree with the Catholic teaching on birth control, women priests, divorce, etc.? No, and this is where everyone of us ought to take a deep breath, stop the various attacks and pray for all of Christ’s flock. The primary reason Catholics leave their church is that their spiritual needs are not being met. Read that statement again. 71% said this was their reason in the Pew Research. Simply put, the Catholic Church has failed to give its people a deeply satisfying spiritual experience. Put another way the evidence indicates that doctrine has very little to do with why a person chooses a congregation. The real reason is rooted in a growing and maturing spiritual experience.

There is a lot more that can be learned from this research. I encourage all my Catholic readers to study this with an open mind and heart. I encourage Protestants to not gloat in any way. I can give you compelling evidence for why we fail in many different ways that are bringing about huge losses in our own ranks. The honest truth is that the whole of Christ’s flock should own up to the real problems that we face as we live during a time of massive spiritual declension in the church. This is unprecedented, at least in our lifetime.

Read this article and you will get a fuller picture of what this research tells us and why it really matters to Catholics who love their church.

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  1. chaplain mike May 26, 2011 at 7:45 am

    Thanks for pointing out this study, John. I will read it with interest.

  2. Dan May 26, 2011 at 9:07 am

    Just a couple of gripes with your post, John.
    First, the title of it suggests that “The Great…Exodus” is only a Catholic one, when you and I both know that the great exodus is across the board in all of western Christianity.
    Second, given that Roman Catholics makes up the single largest Christian group/denomination in the west (and the world) by shear numbers, anything that happens across the board will happen in greater whole numbers with Catholics than with any other singles group/denomination. One need only take a beginning statistics course to understand that.
    Third, the National Catholic Reporter is hardly an advocate for the Catholic faith nor for the health or success of Rome. For years, the publication and it’s writers have unfairly assaulted Rome and the church on the whole using skewed statistics, biased reporting, and blatantly poor theology to attempt to discredit Rome and the USCCB. It’s actually funny, given it’s generally liberal theological stance, that the NCR is crediting conservative protestant Christianity with “receiving” all these exiting Catholics. It’s even funnier considering that Fr. Thomas Reese wrote the article since his writing about same-sex marriage, abortion, stem cell research, and priestly celibacy is what has alienated him from the more “conservative” and dare I say doctrinally correct arm of the church.
    Fourth, the research doesn’t say what the reason is for all those who “return” to Rome or become RC the first time is? What if the primary reason is that the RCC meets their spiritual needs in ways no other religious group did. I actually believe that is the case. It is for me. It is for many of the numerous folks I know who like me returned to the RCC. It is for many of those who have written books on the subject, and I know you too have heard all those stories too. So, let’s assume that a large majority of those who return do so because their “needs” are being met. How should the RCC change to stem the “exodus” in a way that doesn’t impact the “return?” What are the acceptable numbers of loss in the “returns” while attempting to stem the “exodus?” Fr. Reese’s implied solutions are silly if this alone were the weakness of his argument, but the weakness goes beyond that and is easily seen by those who carefully read it. You don’t point any of those weaknesses out.
    Fr. Reese writes on one hand that the RC service isn’t creative enough and doesn’t meet the needs of today’s people. “If you build it, they will come; if you do not, they will find it elsewhere.” Seriously? That’s just pitiful, and for you to not jump all over that is surprising to me. But then after that straw-man, Fr. Reese goes on to say homilists don’t preach the bible enough. THE ENTIRE RCC SERVICE IS PRACTICALLY DRAWN STRAIGHT OUT OF THE BIBLE, but Fr. Reese wants it more creative and flexible because homilies don’t have enough bible in them? C’mon.
    Fr. Reese also knows that although in the west, even thought “the Catholic church is hemorrhaging members,” just like with the rest of Christianity, the church is gaining remembers all over the Global South and Asia. How does he account for that? He doesn’t. It doesn’t fit into the meme which believes that in a rapidly changing cultural and one that in greater and greater numbers rejects ANYTHING which holds to absolutes, the church too much change to keep up. Honestly, the facts are, even the kind of churches Fr. Reese points to as being attractive to exiting Catholics are losing members like water through a sieve. No denomination or single group in the west is truly growing. You and I both know that. So, his answers aren’t just weak…they are downright misleading.
    I do agree with Fr. Reese that the church MUST acknowledge what is happening, get it’s head out of the sand, and it ought to address the problem. I just disagree with his conclusions. I actually believe the RCC is starting to acknowledge it. I believe “Catholics Come Home” which has shown some effectiveness, is part of that acknowledgement. I believe HOLDING TO DOCTRINE is also critical to that. I believe being one of the last few and real traditional/liturgical ‘high church’ alternatives to the western church’s ongoing march to Sunday morning entertainment is also important. And I believe turning to writers like Fr. Reese, who have spent their careers (and made their careers by the way) as contrarians to Rome, arguing to the side or against the authority of Rome…is a waste of time.
    And no. The Pew Research doesn’t stand on it’s own as being a valid wake up call. We need more than that. We need knowledgeable men and women who LOVE the Roman Catholic Church, and graciously submit to it’s authority, to look at the research to make truly insightful suggestions as to what to do with the numbers.
    It’s funny. Today is the Feast of St. Philip Neri. Look him up. Look up, too, St. Francis Assisi, and so many others like the two of them. They saw problems in the church and their efforts led to real solutions and real people really getting closer to Christ. Because of men and women like them, the church did change over time. Unlike Fr. Reese and so many of his contemporaries today, Philip and Francis did their work in submission to the church, did so always in support of church authority, did so within existing and approved means and streams of the church, and never said things like “No one except the Vatican and the bishops cares…That the hierarchy thinks this is important shows how out of it they are,” (at least not publicly or in their writings.)
    Can you tell this post got me going?

  3. Bryan Cross May 26, 2011 at 10:18 am

    The Pew Study does not show that “The primary reason Catholics leave their church is that their spiritual needs are not being met.” It may show that the primary reason Catholics leave the Church is that they *think* their spiritual needs aren’t being met. But the Church isn’t fundamentally about meeting our needs, let alone our conception of what we need spiritually. It is fundamentally about serving God in Christ, and giving Him the worship He is due in true obedience [which schism isn’t], and secondarily about getting us to heaven. Our spiritual need, to get to heaven, is to receive Christ body, blood, soul and divinity in the Eucharist *in* the Church, not in schism from the Church. The very answer [given by these respondents] presupposes a kind of ecclesial consumerism [see my CTC article by that title; the link is below] that shows poor catechesis, as though being in full communion with the Church is not a spiritual need, when in actuality it is such an important spiritual need and obligation that no other need justifies forfeiting it.
    In the peace of Christ,
    – Bryan

  4. John Y May 26, 2011 at 6:57 pm

    Someone should write about the “exodus” of Protestant evangelical intellectuals from their respective Protestant traditions to the Roman Catholic Church. I don’t know if it is a sociological phenomenon yet, but it sure smells like it to me.

  5. Nick Morgan May 28, 2011 at 2:06 am

    Though I appreciate the necessary “wake-up call” implied in your post for those of us in the RCC, overall I have to agree with the post by DJ. National Catholic Reporter seems to have an strong distaste for true Roman Catholic orthodoxy.
    God bless!

  6. John Armstrong May 30, 2011 at 9:55 am

    Bryan writes, as a devout Catholic, “It may show that the primary reason Catholics leave the Church is that they *think* their spiritual needs aren’t being met. But the Church isn’t fundamentally about meeting our needs, let alone our conception of what we need spiritually. It is fundamentally about serving God in Christ, and giving Him the worship He is due in true obedience [which schism isn’t], and secondarily about getting us to heaven.”
    My problem is with the use of the word “think” here. I agree with Bryan’s point but believe it begs the question. These Catholics are giving “their response” to what they believe and feel deeply. While we may argue what the church is there for thelogically and sacramentally these people are leaving! We should ask why and what does this mean? I am not asking the Catholic Church to change its raison d’etre but rather to think about how it can stop the loss of people who hunger for more of God in so many cases. To argue that the Mass and the liturgy is reason in itself begs my question I believe.
    As a Protestant pastor the overwhelming response I met in Catholics who came into my congregation was pretty close to what this article is saying. And my experience of this was more than twenty years ago. These same people, who are still in Protestant churches to this day, are NOT anti-Catholics or fundamentalists at all. Several were real leaders in the Catholic Church, even serving as housekeepers to their priests or as musicians and liturgical servants. I never taught them to despise their Catholic Church experience and most all of them never became anti-Catholic in their attitude to their background and family. What they would say is what this article is saying: “We did not hear and understand the teaching of the Word of God.” And, “We longed to hear about Jesus and how to have a personal friendship with him that consumed our life and gave us hope, not fear.” If this is true would it not be well for Catholic leaders to pay attention? This is not bashing the Church but the response of earnest people who were/are searching.
    Is there “ecclesial consumerism” in this response? I would have to think there is some for sure but this is the world we live in, not the one of the past. And most of those I met and still know were not consumers, just hungry, seeking, earnest souls. Am I pleading for “seeker friendly” Catholic services? Heavens no! I am asking if reading the Scripture before the service, in the family, and in preparation for a biblically-based homily which could be much better done, might actually help with this problem. Put another way I am asking Catholics the same kind of question I ask Protestants? Protestants (at least the more evangelical variety) generally react against the Eucharist and frequent reception of the elements, precisely because of their anti-Catholicism. Catholics likewise react to making the Bible and preaching more central to the Mass, because it seems Protestant or not Catholic enough. The Catholic Church before the Reformation understood this much better than the modern church. I saw evidence of this for myself in Rome.
    My dear brother Dan writes of St. Philip Neri and St. Francis, both of whom I read and love deeply. He says that, “They saw problems in the church and their efforts led to real solutions and real people really getting closer to Christ.” I couldn’t agree more. I am not citing Reese as “the answer” but as someone who makes an extremely valid point. Can a progressive, or non-conservative, Catholic make valid points about their own Church? I surely think so. I am willing to listen to critics on both sides and believe we should not fear the words of those who are prone to be so conservative. These very brothers and sisters are often people who see what I will not, or simply do not, see clearly.
    I appreciate my Catholic brothers response to this post. I would simply urge you to remain open to honest and good criticism of the church, criticism from all corners and people who are not hostile to your faith or church. I know it feels like we are criticizing our “mother” (I am not being cute in saying it this way at all) but in this case mother must be willing to ask hard questions too. Had she done so in the 1500s we likely would never have had the shattering breakup we had as a result.
    I think you all know and see that I am not an enemy but a friend. I love the church, all of it. I especially love the Catholic Church since my Protestant communion came out of the Catholic Church historically. I do not believe Rome is “no church” or an “apostate church” as argued by fundamentalists. I think that should be very evident. I believe it to be “a true church that holds some error.” We do acknowledge the baptism, if properly given in the triune name, on both sides. This is a huge admission and should be respected.

  7. Nick Morgan May 31, 2011 at 9:43 pm

    I read your post knowing you are not only a personal friend, but a friend of the Roman Catholic Church. My biggest concerns with some of your statements were about how enemies of the RCC would misuse the information you cited to “prove” we are “apostates”. I know that your intentions are only good and your concerns for us are truly valid.
    God bless you brother!

  8. John Armstrong May 31, 2011 at 9:49 pm

    Nick, I love you brother. You are a precious friend. I believe enemies will use anything they can to say about anything they want to say. We must be honest, discuss the information and data and trust God with his Church and people. My concerns are for the renewal of the Spirit inside the Catholic Church. This puts me, as you well know, in a somewhat precarious spot since anti-Catholics protest and some conservative Catholics feel I am taking a shot when I am really hoping that some leaders will “hear” a sincere call to new love for Christ in the Roman Communion.

  9. Northernrain June 2, 2011 at 9:21 pm

    I found the article rather thought provoking. Here are some brief thoughts…. I’m not sure if my own experience is skewed, but I was puzzled as to why the research cited did not really line up — or perhaps identify — with what I’ve experienced over the last forty years. I was raised in fervent evangelical culture in four countries, and now, in my early 60s, I tend to look back and ask “why”. Why did so many leave their Christian faith?
    Stats aside, anecdotal evidence is worth something, so I’ll just cite one example.
    Between 1980 – 1995, I saw 50% of my protestant evangelical friends leave their faith, opting for either agnosticism, new age, or a privatized personal “faith” of some nebulous shape that seemed without creed or even open to discussion. Many of those I knew who left the faith were well-studied in theology, in the best of evangelical apologetics, some were elders in churches where I attended.
    For some of us – possibly a small minority — the only other route — the last resort, so to speak — was to return to the ancient church, as “historical evangelicals”, or into full communion with the Catholic or Orthodox churches. Our own personal experience in this has been tremendously fulfilling. My wife, raised in devout Plymouth Brethren circles, can now say that the Catholic church is “what I’ve been searching for my whole life.”
    We also know many people here who, raised in evangelical culture, returned to the ancient eastern orthodox church. Some of the same reasons which I have listed here…. major questions about the roots of the faith, about the nature of the church, and the basis for believing in Christ. For many of us, protestantism came to be seen as arbitrary, suspended somewhere in space with no roots.
    We also know many ex-cradle Catholics who did not seem to find their spiritual experience satisfying, and so they left. Now, after 12 years in the church, we can see various reasons. I have to say that one reason, is poor catechesis, really understanding what the faith is all about. Much of catechesis has tended to be poorly taught. Catholic theology is very deep, has to be seen as a whole, and much of it is commonly misunderstood or distorted. Unfortunately, the distortions are where the flash points between catholic and protestants tend to occur.
    The evangelical emphasis, its emphasis on the relationship with Jesus, can be a real gift to the catholic church — whether offered by those who enter into full communion (I do consider myself “evangelical”), or those who must remain protestant, and seek to nurture close friendships, better understanding, and fellowship across the whole spectrum of the body of Christ.
    The fact that we are drawn to each other, across boundaries, should be an encouragement, an affirmation of the truth that the church is “one, holy, catholic, and apostolic”, and it is an unhealthy woundedness which divides us.
    Thanks for posting.

  10. John Armstrong June 2, 2011 at 9:54 pm

    Thank you Northernrain. This is a wonderful and very thoughtful response. I would love to hear more from you anytime you wish to post here.
    I shared lunch today with one of my dearest friends. He became an Orthodox priest after being a Baptist minister for more than 35 years. His faith and mine have been on very similar trajectories though we have not ended at the same point in terms of our view of the church. While I am paleo-orthodox, and believe very much in classical Christianity, I remain Protestant. At the same time I find pop-cultural Christianity depressing and unfaithful to the extreme. I believe the exodus of evangelicals to the two ancient churches demonstrates a movement that is deep and will continue. I am not alarmed by this movement but sympathetic even though I remain a Protestant minister.
    What we need to do is to stop the gross misrepresentations of one another and then learn how to support our brothers and sisters as they seek out the fullness of the faith by following Jesus wherever He leads them. I trust Him, not myself. I can also trust Him in the life of my friends. I think this is what love requires so long as my friends keep following Jesus faithfully. This is at the heart of it all—confess the ancient, holy, catholic faith and follow Jesus!

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